Court Appearances - Criminal

by The FindLaw Team

One of the main functions of the courts is to hear criminal matters.

Commencement of criminal proceedings

In New Zealand, criminal proceedings for an offence is commenced by the filing a charging document in a District Court. If the offence is minor, and depending on the circumstances, the defendant may be given diversion by the Police, but if not, their case will proceed through the criminal justice system. 

The court may decide at the outset if the defendant should be kept in custody until the next court appearance or whether they can be released on bail. Then, usually once the prosecution has disclosed the information it has about the case to the defendant through his or her defence lawyer, if they have one, the defendant pleads either guilty or not guilty, but the defendant can plead guilty at any time before trial. Usually the judge will encourage the defendant to get some legal advice before they will take a guilty plea. Where a guilty plea is entered, the judge may either sentence the defendant then and there, or the case may be adjourned for a sentence hearing.

Case management

The category of the offence and procedural factors dictate what happens to the case next. There are four categories of criminal offences, where category 4 is the most serious. Generally these are dealt with by the High Court, and the District Court deals with the rest, depending on the rules of procedure and in some cases, whether the High Court decides to take a case or not. The court dealing with the matter will make orders about how the case proceeds, and where a not guilty plea has been entered, the type, place and date of the trial.

Types of trial

There are two types of trials in New Zealand courts - judge-alone trials and jury trials. Most trials are likely to be judge-alone trials; jury trials are for the more serious matters.

The District Court and the High Court both conduct judge-alone and jury trials. The rules about which court deals with what types of offences and about which court will hear the matter, are mostly contained in the Criminal Procedure Act 2011.

Nature of jury trial

The jury system was inherited from England and ensures community involvement in the legal system. A jury consists of twelve people from the community, who are each entitled to vote on the verdict. The primary and most important function of the jury in a criminal trial is to listen to the facts of the case and apply the law to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

The trial itself

If the trial is by jury, the jury is impaneled first then the trial starts with the charges being read out to the defendant. The defendant is asked if he or she pleads guilty or not guilty. In some cases, a “special plea” can be entered, relating for example, to a prior acquittal, conviction or pardon, where the circumstances support this. The question of whether a defendant is fit to plead may also be raised at this stage. If a special plea succeeds, the defendant will be discharged. However, if the special plea fails, the defendant has another opportunity to plead. If the defendant pleads guilty, the issue of sentence will be decided next. However, if the defendant pleads not guilty, the matter will proceed to trial.

The next step at the trial is the opening address of the prosecution, then the defendant’s legal representative may make an opening address. The witnesses for the prosecution will be called one after another. Witnesses are not permitted to hear any evidence before they themselves have given their evidence, so they stay outside the courtroom until they are called into court. After they have given their evidence, the defence lawyer may ask them questions (this is cross-examination) and the witness may then be asked further questions by the prosecutor (re-examination).

Once the prosecution has called all its witnesses, the defence may call their own witnesses, who then give their evidence and who may then be cross-examined by the prosecution and re-examined by the defence. The only exception to this is where the prosecution has called an expert witness. In this case, the defendant may be allowed to call their own expert witness immediately afterward the prosecution’s expert, if they have permission from the judge.

Once all the evidence has been given, both parties make closing addresses. Depending on whether the trial is a jury trial or not, either the judge or the jury will retire to consider a verdict. The defendant has a right to be present when the verdict is delivered.
It is also important to note that a judge may be able to discharge the defendant prior to the decision on guilt, if “no case” has been made out on the evidence led by the prosecution.


The court will most often adjourn proceedings to a later date for a sentence hearing if the defendant is found guilty at trial or in a rare case, he or she may pass sentence straight after the verdict has been reached. The court will direct the parties about preparation for the sentencing hearing. This preparation may include ordering pre-sentence reports (from the Probation Service about suitability of home detention, for example), and orders about the deadlines for each party to file their submissions on sentencing. The law about this is contained in the Sentencing Act 2002.

Issues to be aware of

The following issues may arise in criminal proceedings:
  •  Legal aid
  •  Legal representation
  • Bail
  • Various procedures that may apply to your case set out in the applicable court rules
  • Any applicable time limits
  • Separation or joining of charges and defendants
  • Details about the procedure and process for any particular type of case
  • Disclosure of material by the prosecutor
  • Applications a party wants the court to decide on (ie. name suppression)
  • Evidence and its admissibility
  • The pleading process and the ramifications of the various available pleas
  • Available defences
  • The trial process
  • Sentencing
  • Options if you are not satisfied with the outcome

The relevance of each of these issues depends very much on the facts and circumstances of your case.

Need help?

A criminal lawyer can provide you with valuable advice about criminal charges you may face or charges you intend to file against someone else, as well as your ability to apply for legal aid and how to go about it. A criminal lawyer can also represent you throughout the court process and provide advice on decisions you will be required to make. For more information, contact a criminal lawyer to discuss your matter further. You can find a criminal lawyer in your area using the FindLaw NZ directory.

We welcome your feedback

Hi there! We want to make this site as good as it can for you, the user. Please tell us what you would like to do differently and we will do our best to accommodate!

We've updated our Privacy Statement, before you continue. please read our new Privacy Statement and familiarise yourself with the terms.